By Michael Troyan (Citrus Heights, CA, USA)
“I am intrigued with the tycoons of this industry…You know, I’ve
always felt that Hollywood had a wonderful kind of foolish grandeur
like the Italian court in the Renaissance. It’s got its kings, clowns,
wicked princesses and clever mistresses – all in a ferment of ambitious
motion.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald, Beloved Infidel (1959)
Seventy-five years after F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famously unfinished novel The Last Tycoon was published, Hollywood is finally doing right by it. From the best novel about Hollywood ever written, writer/director Billy Ray and his craftspeople have produced a beautifully realized portrait of Fitzgerald’s Hollywood – aka an exploration of the fascinating world of MGM wunderkind producer Irving Thalberg. Fitzgerald knew the legendary “Boy Wonder” during the last ten years of his tragically short life.
“Thalberg has always fascinated me,” Fitzgerald said. “His peculiar charm, his extraordinary good looks, his bountiful success, the tragic end of his great adventure. The events I build around him are fiction, but all of them are things which might very well have happened, and I am pretty sure that I saw deep enough into the character of the man so that his reactions are authentically what they would have been in life. So much so that that he may be recognized – but it will be also recognized that no single fact is actually true.”
Since its publication in 1941 the novel has been adapted as a TV play in 1957 and a Paramount feature film in 1976 directed by Elia Kazan and starring Robert De Niro and Theresa Russell. It was the release of a new version of the novel (published under the title The Love of the Last Tycoon in 1993) and its subsequent adaptation into a stage production in Los Angeles in 1998 that inspired HBO to develop this TV series.
Fitzgerald’s story, similarly recounted in this new production, charts the rise of film producer Monroe Stahr (Matt Bomer), who often clashes with his boss Pat Brady (Kelsey Grammar). There is romance both tragic – Stahr’s obsession over the death of his wife Minna Davis (Jessica De Gouw) – and promising: Stahr is intrigued by starlet Kathleen Moore (Dominique McElligott) and Brady’s daughter Cecelia (Lily Collins) is falling for him. The TV show builds upon the Depression Era background with authentic glimpses of a Hooverville and its homeless families, and Nazi Germany’s disturbing influence over Hollywood.
This new Tycoon, by Amazon Studios and Tri-Star Television, is a winner on all counts. For admirers of Fitzgerald’s book – not to mention those who think “they don’t make them like they used to” – this show is a must-see. In a time when we badly need heroes there is a rare one in this production to root for, and Matt Bomer is, as always, a very welcome class act. The exquisite cinematography (Daniel Moder), production design (Patrizia von Brandenstein), wardrobe (Cate Adams, Christina Johnson, Patricia Peppard, Erica D. Schwartz), and music (Mychael Danna) have created a magical vision of Old Hollywood. They even made the old Paramount lot exteriors used in the show sparkle like they once did.
There is the briefest of clips from David O. Selznick’s Rebecca (1940) – of a car driving up to a house afire – during the show’s opening “newsreel” to depict Minna’s death. Selznick’s motto was” “In a tradition of quality,” and that certainly applies to this production.